It’s hard to suggest that someone who, until late January of this year, was World No 1, would need to mount a comeback of any kind; particularly someone who was the year-end World No 1 two years in a row. But the end of 2018, and indeed, the start of this season, were not particularly kind to Simona Halep. The Simona Halep we saw on Saturday night (13 July), however, was unbeatable in a way few can be — playing an impenetrable, near-flawless match of tennis that left the greatest in the game simply looking on.
Halep needed all of 56 minutes to outclass someone who is widely considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, someone whose favourite surface is grass, and a player who has won Wimbledon a staggering seven times of her 23 Major titles. As Serena Williams put it, Halep was nearly unplayable, and "it’s hard to play someone when she’s playing like that."
And indeed, the last few months have not been particularly easy for Halep, who had already been denied a shot at a second major by Serena Williams this year, at the fourth round of the Australian Open. A lacklustre season on her favourite surface — clay, with one final — in Madrid, and back-to-back early exits in Italy and then, the French Open, meant that Halep would lose the points she was defending from 2018 and travel further down the rankings.
2018 had been a different story for the Romanian. Riding on a phenomenal 2017 season, where she had made consistent finals and ended the year as No 1 for the first time, she came determined to hold onto that ranking, and then to go one further and win a major or two. This time, Halep, performing phenomenally on clay in the Fed Cup, took her successes to Roland Garros, where she finally won her first coveted major on her favourite surface, half a year after she had come so close to her first Grand Slam title only to be denied by Caroline Wozniacki.
But 2018 was not all easy for Simona Halep; although her year started off strong enough, she would play only one tournament on the grass — her self-confessed least-favourite surface — and the one least suited to her aggressive, attacking style of play. On Saturday, though, she committed only three unforced errors in the duration of the final.
Towards the end of the past season, Halep had already shown signs of slowing down somewhat; her back injury struggles were compounded by perhaps the biggest change she had seen in her career in years. The Romanian’s long-term coach Darren Cahill decided to take a one-year hiatus from coaching and it would, no doubt, have affected the player whose career had seen a significant uptick since the Australian former pro came on as her coach.
Only a month ago, however, Cahill was seen with the rest of Halep’s team — including current coach Daniel Dobre — whom Halep worked with prior to, and during, her coaching partnership with Cahill. Of their partnership, the 27-year-old said “I trust him, and we had a good collaboration in the past… the most important thing is that I feel good with him. We have a good connection, and it makes things easier.”
Halep's serves, forehands, groundstrokes — and obviously, as a result, her rankings — all improved under Cahill’s watchful eye, but the biggest change came in her attitude and mindset. Following her poor performance against Johanna Konta at the Miami Masters of 2017, Cahill had once temporarily stepped away from coaching her, and it was the shame that Halep had felt then at her effort that led her to put in the work to, as it were, win Cahill back as coach.
In the years since, Halep has been working not only with coaching professionals but with sports psychologists to guide her on-court mental game as deeply as she was working on the physical aspect of the sport. The Halep of old may have even been disheartened by her past results this year, but each time she has been knocked down, she gets up.
Halep was far from the favourite coming into Wimbledon this year; her form had been good but not particularly inspiring, and some of the strongest players on the grass were all gunning for the title this year.
Halep is not just a heroine for the underdog, and yes, even if the underdog is not particularly a word you’d use to describe a former World No 1, almost anyone playing against Serena Williams at the final of any Grand Slam, but especially Wimbledon, is perhaps the underdog.
In the final, she was a heroine for the entirety of Romania.
Although the country has had a significant number of players even in the women’s singles, perhaps none has been as high profile as Halep, not even her own current manager, 1978 French Open singles champion Virginia Ruzici. The country’s first single Number One since Ilie 'Nasty' Nastase, Halep has, once again, given her country a heroine they can be proud of — one who comes with achievements unsullied by unsportsmanlike behaviour, clouded by abuse, racism and the outbursts that blighted Nastase’s career — all caused by himself.
At the moment, it was perhaps Serena Williams who put it best of all: "There’s so many impressive things about her. Her tenacity, her ability to improve every time, just to keep improving. Her ability to find power. You can’t underestimate her. She’s like a little powerhouse,” she said, following Halep’s win.
Gone is the Simona Halep who lost her first three Grand Slam finals, temperamental, scared and nervous. Saturday's final was not just a display of phenomenal tennis, but a masterclass in the power of self-belief.
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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2019 11:51:41 IST